Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Vera Baird: I do not agree. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the point I made with regard to the Drug Trafficking Act 1984. I also refer him to the comparable provision in the money laundering legislation in section 93C(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. I can see nothing in that that confines the operation of the provision to the regulated sector. It states:

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''A person is guilty of an offence if, knowing or having reasonable grounds to suspect than any property''

represents another person's dodgy goods—if I may short-circuit the quotation in that way—they conceal, disguise, convert or transfer it.

Therefore, with regard to money laundering and the proceeds of drug trafficking the test is wider, rather than narrower, than it is in the legislation under discussion—which also currently incorporates the reprehensible notion that a person can be guilty by negligence. Opposition Members have tabled an amendment to clause 324 that will remove criminal liability by negligence, and I have made it clear to the Minister that I heartily agree with that amendment. However, clause 321 does not show the Minister to be a tyrant: he has not widened the provision. On the contrary, he has narrowed it—he is a ''verray, parfit, gentil knight''. Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful for the experience that the hon. Lady brings to the Committee, and I am delighted that she supports my amendment to clause 324. As she has already told the Minister that she supports it, I hope that she will vote for it, as it would make a welcome change if she were to support us.

With regard to the substantive issues that the hon. Lady raised, I wonder whether I heard her correctly at one point. Did the quotation that she cited from the Criminal Justice Act 1988, section 93C (2) contain the phrase

    ''or having reasonable grounds to suspect''?

If the money laundering parts of that Act contain that term, that supports the responses that my hon. Friends and I gave to many of this morning's interventions.

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman quoted me correctly.

I shall not vote for the amendment to clause 324. I said that I agreed with it, but I want to hear what the Minister says. [Laughter.] Anyone can laugh at this, but that is absolutely childish. The correct way for a member of a political party to proceed is to try to persuade internally. The Bill will pass through several stages after it leaves us and I will not stop trying to get rid of liability by negligence. Voting has little to do with the matter.

3.30 pm

May I reiterate what I have said already, because I fear that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has not clocked it? The test under the old law is that a person is guilty if he knows something or has reasonable grounds to suspect it. That is not a narrower provision: it is guilt by negligence. A person does not have to suspect something at all—there need only be reasonable grounds for suspicion. A person can be unaware of any suspicion but be guilty. The hon. Gentleman missed the point.

Mr. Hawkins: I hope that I am innocent of the hon. Lady's charge. I understand her point. I agree with her entirely about a person not being guilty by negligence, which I think that she understands. However, our point, as we say in the amendment, is about a person

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doing something knowingly. We also raised the alternative of reasonable belief, which I suggested when I responded to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas).

This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield mentioned objective and subjective tests. That is the point that the hon. Lady makes. I have clocked it—to use her terminology—and I understand it.

Vera Baird: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman cleared that up second time round. The Opposition have said all day that the provision is wider than before and that the Minister is a dreadful tyrant to introduce it. The opposite is true, and the Opposition have been barking up the wrong tree for four hours, which has been painful to behold and irritating to hear.

I shall address the idea of ''reasonable suspicion'', which the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) suggested would be better than suspicion. That suggestion muddles the level of suspicion with the grounds on which it is based. People can—and do—become suspicious instinctively that something is dodgy without giving any reasonable grounds for it. The suspicion may be due to instinct and experience. We do not want to license people in such a position to continue with a transaction rather than disclosing it, by introducing the ''reasonable'' qualification. The inclusion of the word ''reasonable'' is neither a good idea nor consistent with the Bill's purpose.

The difference between belief and suspicion is all that this can realistically boil down to. It is easy to see why belief is appropriate when considering stolen goods, because a person may have an item in front of them that was bought for a tenner, but is worth 50 quid. Therefore one knows for sure—or believes—that it is stolen. However, when we are considering outside observers in banking, who only look at transactions that come up on a screen or deal with somebody else's actions, it would be difficult and inappropriate to say that they must believe that there was a particular dodgy deal. The right trigger mechanism is that the outside observer is made suspicious. As soon as he is suspicious, we should encourage him to report the matter, which is what he must do.

I would never dare to interrupt my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok because I am a lawyer, and I am sure that I would get back twice as much if I did—and because he is excruciatingly funny and I am too busy laughing to interrupt him. He gave a forceful and detailed account of the evil at which the Bill, and this part of it, is directed. I was pleased to hear that. However, his speech presupposed that the measure is confined to the regulated sector. It is not, and never has been. If it were confined to the regulated sector, I would still suggest—even on my hon. Friend's principle that we can be draconian with toffs, but should be better to our people—that we should be careful. The regulated sector set out in schedule 6 includes, for instance, people working in building societies, who will not necessarily be the City of London people of whom he is always critical. Furthermore, it also includes business carried on by credit unions, which in my constituency are run by

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volunteers. We must therefore be extremely careful. However, the Government have been appropriately careful, and the provision is narrower than the Opposition have painted it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We have had a very wide-ranging discussion, which has taken longer and gone further than anticipated. I have no desire to lengthen it, but I want to make a couple of points.

First, I need to make a correction—I became a little befuddled when I was quoting figures for the international comparisons this morning. I have created confusion in Hansard, and it is necessary to put the record straight. The point that I was trying to make is that there is a lower level of prosecutions in this country than there ought to be given the size of the financial sector, in the light of international comparisons. I said that there were 298 prosecutions in Germany in 1994, which is not true; the actual figure is 198. My argument was correct, however. In Germany, in 1994 the figure was 198, in 1995 it was 321, and in 1996 it was 349. In the UK, during the period 1995-99 there were only 315 prosecutions. That seems to indicate a relatively low level in this country, in the light of international comparisons.

Mr. Wilshire: I want to put on the record the fact that I appreciate that the correct information is being made available, as, I am sure, does the whole Committee. I am sure that that is the end of the matter.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am grateful for that.

I want to clarify the issues about which the Committee is falling out. I hope that I am neither the tyrant nor Mr. Softy, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) for the defence of my position that she has so ably put up. In relation to the two amendments, we are tightening one aspect and loosening another. One amendment applies to concealment, and my hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that there is a negligence test in the existing legislation. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was right in one of the things that he said—that the provision is principally targeted at the regulated sector—but he undermined his earlier argument that the provision does not apply to the regulated sector alone. As has been said, the existing legislation, which he and his hon. Friend claim to support, contains a negligence test.

Moving on to clause 323, the hon. Gentleman is right that the current threshold is higher than that which we propose. However, it does not amount to a negligence test; it is perfectly acceptable, and should not be heightened. I think that I upset the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, which I did not intend to do—I noticed a flash of anger from him for the first time in this Committee—when I accused him of wishing to apply different standards to different people. I like the liberal values that he appears to extol, which, coming from a Conservative Member of Parliament, surprises me. I do not believe that lower standards should be expected of some classes of people. In my experience—I hope that it is experience and not prejudice—in questions of ethics, the standard

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of the behaviour of people on the shop floor is a darned sight higher than it is from those in the boardroom, by and large. We could justify the idea the other way round, although I accept that everyone needs to be protected by the law.

In cases of both possession and concealment, it is reasonable to expect someone with suspicions not to make transactions or continue to possess property without reporting that suspicion. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield seems worried that we are removing sub judice tests, but I do not believe that we are doing that. I am advised that we are not.

When we consider clause 324, which is confined entirely to the regulated sector, we shall have to debate whether we should include a negligence test under that clause, and to what degree, if any, we should allow subjective considerations. Although we may differ on those points, I hope that I can move my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar. Perhaps I cannot, but those are important issues.

Of course a person is free to argue that they bought property at a house sale, for example. Let us say that someone put an advertisement in the newspaper saying, ''I am going to Australia, everything must go,'' and that someone else got a bargain and bought an item well below its value at that sale. That person could argue that the circumstances were such that they did not suspect and should not be asked questions. That would be a defence, and to suggest otherwise is simply not true.

 
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